Recently I heard a radio show about Sgt. Pepper. The weak excuse to rake over old ground about this record was that it was the 48th anniversary of the photo session for its sleeve. That said, hearing some of the hyperbole that surrounds the LP did make me wonder how much of it is true.
First up was the tale about Sgt. Pepper’s public debut. The story goes that the Beatles took an acetate copy of the album to Mama Cass Elliot’s flat, just off the Kings Road in Chelsea. They played it at full volume at six in the morning with the windows wide open. According to the Beatles’ press agent, Derek Taylor, there wasn’t a single complaint. What happened instead was that local residents opened their windows because they wanted to listen to the music.
Really? There is no music that appeals to everyone, particularly when it has the convulsive shock of the new. It’s less likely still that music will be welcomed at six in the morning. It’s also the case that different elements of music travel at different rates. What most of the neighbourhood would have heard was the low throb of the rhythm section. Was the whole of 1960's Chelsea into drum and bass?
This idea that everyone liked Sgt. Pepper is perpetuated elsewhere. The radio documentary recalled Kenneth Tynan’s review of the album for The Times, in which he described its release as ‘a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation’. It also quoted Langdon Winner, looking back on the album a year after it was issued. He believed that:
The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. In every city in Europe and America the radio stations played, “What would you think if I sang out of tune . . . Woke up got out of bed . . . looked much older, and the bag across her shoulder . . . in the sky with diamonds, Lucy in the . . .” and everyone listened. At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In every city where I stopped for gas or food – Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend – the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.
Once again we are provided with the idea that there was unity in appreciation of this album (and once more the people caught up in its public broadcast were somehow hearing pure melodies rather than distant bass thuds).
Maybe the truth of these statements doesn’t really matter. What’s interesting is that people were moved to say them in the first place: there must have been something about the release of this record that felt like a new community was being forged.
Could such a thing happen today? The nearest that popular music has come to a unifying force in recent times is ‘Gangnam Style’, or maybe ‘Harlem Shake’. Nobody would write about these songs in such an overblown way.
This is perhaps to do them a disservice. It could be said that these songs are, in fact, more global than Sgt. Pepper has ever been. They have united people of the west and east. That they’re not taken seriously is perhaps a mark of our times. One of the reasons why the Beatles elicited such highfaluting commentary was because there were divides: between the young and old, between the old and new, between the high and low arts. Cultural critics were keen to validate the Beatles and in the process could get carried away. These divides have broken down in recent years. We’ve all gone pop!
Another reason why ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Harlem Shake’ aren’t taken as seriously is because they are dance songs. Dancing to music is nevertheless just as important as thinking about it. It’s also, in truth, a greater force for change. Although Beatlemania is often seen as the real beginning of the sixties, it should not be forgotten that ‘The Twist’ had already done much to break down social barriers. Dancing can be dangerously cohesive. The Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver once described the Twist as ‘a guided missile, launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia’. Adding that it ‘succeeded, as politics, religion, and law could never do, in writing in the heart and soul what the Supreme Court could only write on the books’. The power of dance had been seen earlier with jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, and would be seen again with disco and rave.
As so often, George Clinton helps us make sense of these things. He foresaw ‘One Nation Under a Groove’. Unity is best achieved through getting on the good foot, not by stroking our chins. Say what you like about Sgt. Pepper – and I’m sure that people will go on saying what they like about it - but it’s not great for dancing to.